Sustainable Development Goals – how should businesses act?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are ultimately aimed at “freeing the human race from the tyranny of poverty and healing and securing our planet”, present a supremely ambitious and transformative vision to be pursued and achieved by all sectors of society, including governments, businesses and the public, by 2030.

With very low public awareness, and government action more or less non-existent, progress on achieving the SDG’s within the UK to date has been primarily driven by the private sector. This isn’t particularly surprising given the SDGs have been called the greatest economic opportunity of our time. Forward thinking organisations have finally realised the cost of inaction will ultimately be far greater than action.

But with 17 targets and 169 sub-targets on topics as diverse as gender equality, zero hunger and climate action, if you don’t have a dedicated team working on your sustainability agenda, where do you even begin?

Here’s our four-step process for getting the SDGs off the ground in your business:

  1. Assess the materiality of each SDG to your organisation & align with your existing strategy

The good news is that whilst the SDGs are necessarily far-reaching, it’s likely that not all 17 SDGs are entirely relevant to your organisation.

Take one of our FTSE-listed clients – a recruitment company – as an example; whilst their existing CSR strategy hasn’t been aligned with the SDGs, it already has a keen focus on SDG #5 (gender equality), #8 (decent work and economic growth) and #13 (climate action). Given their sector and existing strategy, these three SDGs are clearly the most material to their organisation and could easily be aligned with their existing strategy.

For some of our other clients, SDGs such as #7 (affordable and clean energy) and #12 (responsible consumption and production) will be clearer areas of focus. Identifying the SDGs which are material, relevant, and upon which your organisation can influence, will allow you to focus your efforts and work efficiently.

 

  1. Demonstrate the business case

Whilst increasingly we are seeing more and more organisations, particularly consumer brands, shift to a purpose led model, where success is measured by more than just share price, the bottom line is that profitability is a key component of long term sustainability.

Conveniently then, its estimated that achieving the SDGs will open up $12 trillion in market opportunities and generate 380 million new jobs by 2030. As the Financial Times put it: “it is a paradox that the most profitable companies are not the most profit-focused”. Time and time again, we see that purpose-led businesses, who act ethically and put consumer expectations at the heart of their business model, outperform profit-driven competitors, where the ends tend to justify the means. Making progress towards the SDGs shouldn’t be seen as an entirely altruistic exercise, the truth is that whilst achieving the SDGs will benefit society, it will also improve your businesses profitability and long term sustainability.

 

  1. Establish buy in at a senior level

In almost every case, the organisations with the best track record in terms of sustainability, tend to be those with passionate and committed leadership who are wholly bought into the concept of sustainable growth.

Think Paul Polman at Unilever, Elon Musk at Tesla or Marc Bolland at M&S. It’s rare that sustainability truly flourishes without strong top down leadership. Establishing support from your businesses leadership, whether that be through highlighting the positives or the likely consequences of not evolving, will be crucial to ensuring that your organisation does more than just pay lip service to the SDGs.

  

  1. Set targets and KPIs to measure your success as a purpose-led business

Whichever SDG you decide to pursue, setting a time bound target and putting the appropriate KPIs in place to track progress is crucial to not losing momentum.

For SDG #13 (climate action), this could be as simple as setting a carbon reduction target (which your organisation may well have anyway), and tracking performance by reporting your carbon footprint annually. On the other hand, the targets and KPIs implemented for other SDGs may require more thought as to what you actually want to achieve as an organisation and what success actually looks like.

Reporting in this manner has various benefits for the organisation, including improved transparency, the generation of positive news stories and creating the incentive for success. Furthermore, this approach compliments a number of existing reporting requirements which large businesses are obliged to undertake anyway, such as reporting GHG emissions (the Companies Act), social, human rights and diversity information (Non-Financial Reporting Directive) and producing an annual slavery and trafficking statement (Modern Slavery Act).

The SDGs represent a unique opportunity for businesses globally. With an increasingly complex regulatory landscape continuing to develop globally, the SDGs offer a broad framework against which organisations can align their medium to long term strategy and reporting with stakeholder expectations whilst driving innovation, future proofing the business model, increasing profitability and ultimately contributing towards sustainable development. When viewed through this lens, the question really becomes why wouldn’t you be acting on the SDGs?

 

To learn more about what the SDGs are and why they were set, read our blog here.